Not everybody you talk to will agree with the statements I’ll make in a moment on my website. However, I’ve stated them because I feel that as they are valid for me, they may therefore be valid for you when you begin your journey into model railroad operations. Note that this is a primer of sorts, and a living document that will take shape over the remainder of my modelling life. I’d be honoured should you choose to share the journey in this area of the hobby.

Model railroad car operations

Model railroad car operations (MR Ops) is a board game – pure and simple. Many will tell you it is something else but the reality for me is plain to see.

You have:

  • a playing board (your layout, or module(s)),
  • two or more pieces of rolling stock – one or more of which must be a locomotive, and freight and passenger car(s) that need to be moved, according to
  • a set of rules that determines how the game play goes.

The difference in this game is that there are no winners or losers as people are not pitted one against the other as adversaries although Gomez Addams may beg to differ. Unlike many other games this is an inclusive game where all players work together to achieve a goal. That goal is moving trains across the layout to get a job done in the most efficient manner.

The rules should you wish to copy or adapt real railroad rules, come with a quite restrictive rule set (mainly because Sir Isaac Newton is a very hard task master). When we add to all of the above a ticking of the clock the game becomes very challenging for all concerned. It is highly rewarding for all that since you set the level of complexity – easy at first and then increasingly complex as you play and understand the nature of the game more.

The game play is limited once you choose the rules used to move the pieces that from here out we’ll call trains. The rules however allow you to view the game play as a standard. In the long run this provides the ability to determine the role trains play in the game and how they move cars from their beginning location to the final destination.

Remember that the role of a train is to move a car from a shipper to a receiver in a timely manner under the rules.

Your focus can shift from

  • Operating long trains over the entire length of a railroad,
  • Switching local industries in a timely manner, using the track space available, to find the best moves to get your cars in and out of spots, and
  • The game can involve only one person, the layout owner, or many people.

It all depends on your level of comfort and your desire to share your adventure.

Large and small scale operations

There are many types of model railroad layout. In my experience though operating schemes tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Large area of operation
  • Small area of operation

There are those of you reading this who will say that I have forgotten Micro-layouts. Micro layouts take up an incredibly small amount of space, and are in most limited cases operable. But they generally fall into the small area of operation type.

Where they are (and I’ll layout the rules in Operations 101 of what is and what is not an operable layout) you’ll notice that they are covered under the second definition above: small area of operation. Quickly before we finish the introduction to this topic lets take a look at the differences between the two operating schemes above and why I focus on small area of operation (SAO) layouts.

Large area of operation layouts

Any layout designed for operations that occupies a space larger than 32 square feet I define as a large area operations layout. These layouts are:

  • big enough for trains to visually move between separate areas of the layout. (Visual isolation)
  • designed to represent more than one area (think towns along a line for example), or many places in one area (think large industries).

This site does not concern itself with the large area of operation layouts. I have provided plenty of resources on the bibliography page that you can use to fill your blank Large area of operation canvas.

Small area of operation layouts

Any layout designed for operations that occupies a space of less than 32 square feet, whether a 4′ x 8′ table top, 16′ x 2′ shelf switcher or something in between is what I define as a small area of operations layout. This type of layout has many benefits for the beginner and advanced model railroader alike:

  • They fit in most modern homes or apartments,
  • They take less time and cost less to construct,
  • They can be highly detailed often spectacularly so, and
  • Can be built to suit a space or made mobile for exhibition display

An added benefit of choosing to build a smaller layout is that you can build many layouts over the course of your modelling career. Indeed as many as your mood fancies over your lifetime. Many of the layout builders that I’ll introduce you to have built many layouts over time. Some have built many over the last year or two.

Model railroad operations – a definition

There are as many definitions as there are modellers. But, I’ll try and provide a framework for us to work with for the long haul that will allow you to fill in the blanks as your skill and understanding grow.

A textbook definition would read something like this: “Model railroad operation is the application of the processes, rules and procedures from the prototype that allow us to run a model railroad in an a realistic manner.” But let’s be honest there has to be a definition that makes all of this a lot easier to understand. After many days of thinking, and a flash of insight while making a cup of tea in the kitchen tonight I can boil it all down to this: For a layout  to be described as an “operating layout” trains must do work, be directional and have a purpose.

A Summary

In summary then; the basics needed to begin realistic operations:

  • A playing board.
  • Pieces (locomotives, freight and passenger cars) that can be moved on the board,
  • Rules that define how the pieces may move,
  • Rule and situation modifiers to determine irregular behaviour of the pieces,
  • A beginning point and end point to the game.

In addition trains must:

  • Do work (add, subtract from or alter its consist).
  • Be directional (arrive from somewhere before going somewhere else).
  • Have a purpose (serve a need in our modelled community).

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